L’Argent (1928)

There are many film festivals which take place every year, many quite tightly focused on a genre or country, which makes the Fashion in Film Festival one with a rather broader and more malleable purview. This year they based their event around the films of French director Marcel L’Herbier, who had rather an eye for costume design, not least in this late-silent era film.

Not unlike the more famous Napoléon (1927) of Abel Gance, L’Argent‘s great length and its place near the end of the silent period of cinema has sometimes marked it out as being some sort of summation of a certain trend in French cinema, often called ‘impressionism’ (though that’s a contentious term). There’s certainly something to that assessment, with its freely moving camera and tight psychological focus on a small number of characters. Its reach may be greater than what it ultimately achieves, but that’s still quite a bit.

I haven’t read the original novel, but by all accounts this is a fairly loose adaptation, updating the original to the contemporary period (which is the kind of thing that even in modern films attracts criticism). At the centre is Saccard (played by Pierre Alcover), very much the image of the gruff fat cat banker, whose Banque Universelle is foundering in the markets. He seizes on a meeting with the naïve Jacques Hamelin (Henry Victor), an aviator with grand plans to drill for oil in Guyana, exploiting him to bolster the B.U.’s position and making advances on his wife Line (Marie Glory) in his absence.

In setting all this up, there’s plenty of good use of the camera, with long shots of the crowded stock exchange rendering all the business as that of ant-like figures scurrying about, not to mention lingering close-ups on faces, often dramatically pushed out of focus. As Saccard’s manipulations become more fevered — especially those concerning Hamelin’s wife, whose spendthriftness Saccard exploits to his advantage — so Glory’s acting is pushed to occasional extremes of histrionic affectation (as is not unusual with early film actors, and hardly confined just to Glory). Better is Brigitte Helm as the slinky Baroness Sandorf, who comes to the fore in the second half of the film, proving herself every bit Saccard’s match in wiliness while bedecked in the film’s most glamorous gowns.

L’Herbier’s interest remains focused on Saccard and the ways he uses money to further his interactions primarily with Line, though Jacques, the Baroness and a rival banker Grunderman move around the edges. L’Herbier’s camera is forever pushed into Saccard’s face, and it’s his sweating desperation that comes across most forcefully in hindsight. It’s above all a morality play, with money and its corrupting influence the object of contempt, so some of the financial details are a little vague. Moreover, it can’t help but drag a little over its extended running time.

However, L’Argent does succeed as a character study aided by some inventive camerawork and impressive set and costume design. It was interesting watching this back-to-back with the latest version of The Great Gatsby, a film set in the same era and featuring a few similar scenes (some nightclub dancing in particular). Both turn on the desperate lure of money for their central characters, but where the tone of that film is of wistful regret, L’Argent is bitter and seems more urgent somehow. Some stock characters never seem to change.

Director Marcel L’Herbier; Writers L’Herbier and Arthur Bernède (based on the novel by Émile Zola); Cinematographer Jules Kruger; Starring Pierre Alcover, Brigitte Helm, Marie Glory [as “Mary Glory”], Henry Victor; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Sunday 19 May 2013.


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